by Howard T. Livingston
A heat wave in San Francisco is rare, but when one occurs, it usually lasts three days. On the third afternoon a strong westerly sea breeze will probably set in, and the following days may bring fog or rain. Tuesday, April 17, 1906, was the first of three such days, and by evening it was still breathlessly hot. With a friend I left my parents' stifling house on Filbert Street and spent several hours strolling about the Cow Hollow neighborhood. I saw no evidence of it myself, but later I heard tales that horses in their stalls were restless much of that night. This, linked with the unseasonable weather--"earthquake weather"--some were to call it, would be remembered by the superstitious as portents of impending disaster. However, as a healthy boy of sixteen who had just finished a hard day's work and had another to face the next day, I felt no premonitions and was asleep soon after 10:00 P.M.
I was awakened by a violent shaking of the house accompanied by a roar and the sound of cracking wood. My brother and I leaped out of bed and stood in the doorway of our room until the shaking stopped. I could hear the crash of falling bricks outside and heard my father say, "This is certainly a real earthquake." It was already light, 5:18 I noticed by the hall clock.
We hurriedly dressed and went outside where we found most of our neighbors talking excitedly. Our immediate reaction was one of relief that our broken chimneys had not come through the roof. Our house and the other frame houses in our area appeared to have withstood the quake except for the chimneys. A block away, I found that a section of Union Street just west of Steiner had slid over the bank and into the vegetable garden of a Chinese farmer, carrying the cable car tracks with it.
Someone pointed to the southeast, and we saw a heavy column of smoke rising from downtown. From Lombard Street I was able to look to the bay, several blocks away, and see that the brick walls of the gas works and the steam power plant had disintegrated, letting the roofs fall in on the machinery below. Only a jagged spire of the tall brick smokestack stood over the power plant. I returned home and found my mother trying her kitchen taps; she found neither gas nor water. She sent me to the bakery, a familiar morning errand, for the baker always opened his shop early and would sell the fresh, warm bread himself if a customer arrived before the clerk came on duty. This morning the shop was crowded, for everyone was awake. We did not realize that it was the last bread we would be able to buy for some days, as all supplies soon were to be exhausted, and all cooking fires would be prohibited. My mother cooked breakfast on her wood stove, the last time she would be able to use it for some days.
I left for work but had to walk, as no streetcars were running. I was employed as an apprentice machinist at the Vulcan Iron Works located at Kearny and Francisco Street at the foot of Telegraph Hill. I remember looking out to the bay just as a large steamer dropped her anchor off the boarding station. It was the Uarda of the Cosmos Line, and several weeks later I had cause to remember her, for by one of those strange coincidences she arrived at Valparaiso, Chile, the morning of a major earthquake there.
At the iron works I found some of the employees had reported, those able to reach the plant on foot, and all were busy talking about their experiences. The superintendent realized that we were uneasy and soon sent us home.
I returned to our house and found my parents and the eldest of my sisters there. Most of the neighbors were also at home. We gathered in groups on the sidewalk, watching the ever-spreading smoke and speculating on our future. About noon refugees from the burned areas began coming by, carrying a few possessions with them. About 2:00 P.M. a neighbor passed along the street telling us all that an order from the mayor's office prohibited all indoor fires, This was the first of many such bulletins. Telephones were not functioning, and of course there were no radios. Orders of this type were circulated by the police who told individual citizens to pass the word along. Our local grocery shop soon became known as headquarters for such information. As I look back on it in this day of elaborate communication systems, it seems amazing how quickly and accurately orders were spread throughout the city.
Deciding that I wanted first-hand information about the fire. I walked up California Street to the top of Knob Hill where I could see the flames for the first time. The City Hall and area south of Market Street were blazing. To the east, the fire had reached Montgomery Street. I walked downhill to the intersections of California and Kearny Streets, where the police blocked further approach. I watched the blaze for awhile, and fellow bystanders told me something of events in the downtown area. The fire-chief had been killed at the time of the earthquake. The chimney of his house had broken in one piece, had crashed through the roof and killed him in his bed. His death was a serious handicap in organizing the fire-fighting, and there had been much confusion in the vital early hours of the blaze. The quake had broken many water mains, and the water shortage was acute,
I watched the burning buildings and was impressed by the intensity and swiftness of flames in consuming a building. The fire seemed to start at street level and soon envelope the entire building. Looking east on California Street, I could hardly see past the first building, as flames completely filled the street between tall buildings.
I walked along Kearny Street to Market. The old Chronicle Building was afire. The new section was under construction with nothing in it yet to burn. The Monadnock Building was just starting to burn. The Hearst Examiner Building was burning fiercely. The Spreckels Building was completely burned out. At Market Street I turned west and walked along the north side of the street, which was not yet burning. The fire south of Market Street was burning intensely, and I could not see more than a block south on Third Street.
At McAllister Street I turned west along the north side, as everything to the south was burning, A sporting goods store at Larkin and McAllister was just starting to burn. I could not understand why this building should have caught fire, as it was across the street from the nearest burning building, and I walked past it without feeling any heat. Then I realized that it had evidently been set afire by burning brands dropped by air currents from above.
West of Van Ness Avenue the fire angled off to the southwest and was spreading up Hayes Valley. At Jefferson Square numerous refugees with a few belongings were bivouacked for the night. Three young men were walking up the street just ahead of me. One had a stick across his shoulders with the end through the handle of a suitcase. I heard him say, "We'll have to spend the night in the park," but he spoke as if he did not consider it at all unusual. At the square some people were standing around a table, eating a meal. People crowded the sidewalks around the square, and many were sitting or lying on the grass,
I returned home and found a family friend from San Pedro. He had been staying at the Grand Hotel which had caught fire soon after the quake. He had hurriedly packed and left. After wandering much of the day, he had inquired the way to our house, where my parents were putting him up for the night. My parents were concerned about my fourteen year old brother, Charles, who had not yet returned from work. Just as I was leaving the house to look for him, he appeared. Charles worked at a men's clothing store downtown near Market Street, He told me that the head of the firm had hired a horse and wagon and with several employees had spent the day transporting clothing to his home for storage, leaving Charles to watch the store. As they loaded the wagon for the last time, the proprietor told Charles to pick out a suit .for himself and take it home. (After the fire, when the store re-opened in a temporary building and Charles reported for work, the proprietor asked him to return the suit!)
The refugees continued to pass. The fire was spreading, and more and more people found it necessary to leave their houses. All day they had come by, and they continued to pass Wednesday evening. Some had almost nothing with them, some had suitcases, occasionally someone dragged a trunk. One woman was carrying a birdcage until someone told her that the bottom had dropped out. A few, with a little more time, had succeeded in hiring horse-drawn vehicles and were able to salvage more of their possessions. A friend of our family, who had elderly parents, was able to rent a horse and wagon at a very high hourly rate. His mother, however, flatly refused to leave her house. The horse and wagon stood at the curb all day. Toward evening, as the fire rapidly approached their block, two policemen picked the woman up and carried her to the wagon.
I found that we were extremely fortunate in having a source of water nearby. A Frenchman named Lacroix operated a garden nursery on our block and had a windmill with a water tank on a tower. One of the bulletins circulated during the day had warned us not to drink any water which might come from faucets as it was contaminated. Until city water service was restored, about two weeks later, we carried our buckets to Mr. Lacroix's tank for water, and we were very careful with it.
Wednesday evening my parents cooked our dinner on an open fire in our back yard, Those who had no back yard built little sheds on the street beside the curbs and made fires there.
Thursday morning, April 19th, our friend from San Pedro decided to try to find a way home, so my father asked me to go with him as a guide. We walked down Bay Street and along the waterfront. The steamship State of California was scheduled to sail that morning for ports in southern California, and a number of people crowded the wharf, waiting for passage. However, the gatekeeper had orders to allow no one aboard. The ship had not been coaled, and as no men were available for the job, her sailing was postponed indefinitely, We could get no positive information as to when any ship might sail, so, while waiting, we decided to get a closer look at the fire. We walked west on Broadway through the wholesale district, which had not yet burned, then along Powell Street to Nob Hill. Men in uniform were patrolling the streets, and we learned that the city had been placed under martial law.
The fire was burning less than one block east: of Powell Street. Residents were evacuating apartment houses on Powell, many of them moving their furniture to the lawn of the [James Flood Mansion, now home of the Pacific Union Club] which occupied a full block on the crest of Nob Hill. The house was set well back from the street, and it was thought that the fire could not reach it. This was a mistake, for the furniture only provided kindling to set the house afire, Guards were ordering everyone to keep moving, so we returned to the waterfront .
At the Pacific Coast Steamship Co. dock we were told that there still was no information as to when a ship might sail and that we should not expect one soon. My friend said that he did not wish to detain me, so we parted at the Ferry Building. Some days later we received a letter telling that shortly after I left he had been able to board a ferry for Oakland, and he left there by train the following day.
Early Thursday afternoon the increasing density of the smoke indicated that the fire was spreading west. Men passed through our neighborhood repeating police orders that buildings near the burning area would be dynamited to open fire lanes. We were to keep doors and windows open to avoid concussion damage. It seemed very possible that the fire might soon reach our area, and many of our neighbors were making preparations to flee to the open spaces west of Van Ness Avenue. While we were discussing our plans, my Uncle Billy drove up in his horse-drawn buggy. He had come up from my grandmother's farm in San Mateo County, on the site of the present Daly City. He had driven in by way of the present 19th Avenue and the Presidio, keeping far west of the burning Mission district. My younger brother and three youngest sisters were already staying at her farm, and my mother and sister decided to return with Billy. My father, brother, and I decided to stay with our house as long as we could, We dug a hole in the back yard and buried some of our most valuable possessions there, in the hope that they might escape being burned. People in upstairs flats had a better view than we and kept a watch on the smoke as we worked. I heard a woman call that it seemed to be approaching less rapidly, and we began to have some hope that the fire was being held in check.
Thursday night many people slept on sidewalks to avoid the danger of being trapped in a burning building, I was tired and went to sleep in my bed, but about midnight my father called me to come outside. I remember that everyone was restless; most people walked about or gathered in small groups to talk.
Friday morning we sat and watched the smoke. Then we saw the fire as it crossed the crest of Russian Hill, We could now watch the actual fire-fighting at Van Ness Avenue, a very wide street. Buildings on the east side of the street were dynamited and then set ablaze to create a backfire, About noon I walked to Van Ness where a detachment of army engineers was in charge of patrolling. Some tugboats had been moored at the foot of the avenue with fire hoses connected to their pumps. As I reached Van Ness, a fire chief yelled that he needed two hundred men to pull the hoses from the tugboats. The soldiers ordered every man in sight to grab hold. I picked up a section, and all of us together carried the hose at a run from the wharf to Vallejo Street.
Shortly after noon a strong, cool sea breeze set in. The three hot days were over. For two days burning embers had been carried high into the air by the strong updraft of the flames, and they had then spread in all directions to start new fires. Now the west wind blew these brands back over the burning area and helped to make the backfiring a success. We could see that the fire east of Van Ness was burning itself out, and, for the first time, we felt some hope that the blaze might be brought under control. The fire did not cross Van Ness Avenue or spread to the north. We began hearing reports that the fire had been contained in other parts of the city, and that night we slept in our beds.
My father and brother and I had been eating what food remained in the house and making tea or coffee over a fire in the back yard. On Friday, when it was still feared that the fire might spread to our area, food stores had permitted people to carry away whatever food they wanted. I had been carrying hose at the time, and when I reached the stores, the shelves were empty. Our own supplies at home were very scanty. Friday evening word was passed that on the following day food would be issued at the Presidio. I went to the Presidio Saturday morning and found a long line at one of the quartermaster warehouses. An officer called that he needed fifty men at the wharf to unload a barge. I had an idea the it would be a good thing for me to volunteer for this detail. At the wharf we were set to unloading boxes and carrying them to horse-drawn trucks. So many men were available that this took very little time. We were then told to follow the trucks to the warehouse, unload them and arrange the contents for issuing. As a reward, we were sent to the head of the line to receive our supplies. For several days I went to the Presidio and each day volunteered to help with the unloading and food handling. The first day I had taken a basket and was given a piece of meat, two potatoes, and a few cans of miscellaneous food. The next day I took some paper bags and was given flour, sugar, oatmeal, and coffee, all dipped from large bulk containers. A week later regular supplies began arriving for those shops which had not been burned, and we gave up accepting rations, These were issued for a long time to people who had no means of purchasing food.
On the last day of the fire we had noticed an increased number of soldiers patrolling the streets, and we learned that they had been brought from army posts in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, They brought their own tents and set them up in several locations throughout the city. There were no street lights, and no lights were permitted in houses. Sentries allowed no one to move about on the streets after dark, The city remained in very good order, however, and we heard no reports of violence or of looting. (In later years I have read reports of looting, but in my neighborhood we heard no such reports at the time.)
I cleaned the bricks from our damaged chimneys. A few days after the end of the fire a refugee bricklayer with his son called at the house and asked if he could have the job of repairing our chimneys. He said that he had his tools and could obtain the material for mortar, My father told him to go ahead, and when the work was completed, my father applied for a permit. The inspector approved both chimneys, and we were again able to cook in the house. Some of our neighbors were less fortunate, as their chimneys had cracked or broken inside the houses, requiring more extensive repair work.
The fire was over, our house was safe, and we had food, but I had no job. The Vulcan Iron Works and everything for blocks around it had been destroyed, There was no unemployment insurance, and I knew that I would have to find work where I could, I read on a placard that men would be needed to clear the streets in the burned area, and all wishing such work should register at a given address. I reported there the following morning. A clerk took my name and told me to wait outside, where the work gangs would be made up, There were many men, and I waited all day without being called. I returned the next day, waited several hours and decided I had little hope of finding work here.
On my way home I made an extensive detour through the burned out area. East of Van Ness Avenue the wooden buildings had disintegrated to beds of ashes within foundation walls. Brick chimneys, or parts of them, stood like monuments in a long abandoned cemetery.
Downtown, among the ruins of the larger buildings, some streets were clear enough to walk through, but others were impassable because walls had collapsed, dumping rubble into the streets. I felt overwhelmed by the destruction and demolition and by the oppressive silence, for there was no vehicular traffic, and there were very few people.
The dome of the City Hall loomed like a huge skeleton, for the masonry had been shaken away from the steel frame. Most of the classic columns had broken and lay in pieces.
South of Market Street the main U.S. Post Office had escaped serious damage by either earthquake or fire, but the street in front of it was buckled in a series of waves, as if some force had pushed the two ends of the block together. Farther east, the U.S. Mint and Hale Brothers' Store were also apparently undamaged. To the south, a large brick factory building with a tall smoke stack was not damaged but stood alone in the midst of total ruin on all sides. The fire had burned completely around the plant of the Western Electric Company and had stopped at the edge of the railway yards. The depot had not burned,
North of Market Street the Kohl Building was not damaged, although it too stood surrounded by the skeletons of burned out buildings. The only damage seemed to be the loss of one plate glass window on the ground floor. The glass had apparently been jarred out of its frame, dropped to the sidewalk, The glass then bounced several feet to the west where I saw it leaning against the building, not even cracked!
In some of the buildings piles of rubbish were smoldering, still red hot. The Montgomery Block, a group of some of the oldest buildings in San Francisco, had come through the fire without damage. The waterfront was relatively free of damage except for some freight sheds which had burned.
I walked to the Vulcan Iron Works, where I had been employed, and found no one around. The buildings had burned, and the shafting had dropped onto the machinery. The Joshua Hendy Machine Works in the next block was similarly ruined and silent,
On the street car tracks at: the foot of Taylor Street I saw the trucks of burned cable cars. I heard that they had been pushed out of the car house at Washington Street and allowed to coast down the hill in the hope that they might escape the fire which was threatening (and did burn) the car house.
I walked to the summit of Nob Hill where I had a view of the entire burned area. I was the only person on the hill, and I found the silence and desolation more overwhelming than ever, for now I could see the total extent of the destruction. For some reason I found myself viewing the scene to the south through the marble frame of a doorway, all that was left, of the Towne mansion. A few days later a photographer used this same door frame as a border for his historic photograph of the ruined City Hall. That marble frame now stands beside a lake in Golden Gate Park beside a sign which reads, "Portals of the Past." I remembered Nob Hill as the site of some of the most magnificent houses in San Francisco, including those of "the Big Four" railroad tycoons: Huntington, Stanford, Crocker, and Hopkins. The [James Flood] house, where I had watched people store furniture on the lawn on the second day of the fire, was the only one still standing, and it was a burned out stone shell (later to be rebuilt). The Fairmont Hotel, barely completed and not yet open to the public, was also burned out. The gigantic Victorian castle built by Mark Hopkins and most recently an art institute was a pile of smoldering ash. So was the Stanford residence next to it,
I recall how quickly the city began to rebuild. As early as Saturday morning following the fire, newsboys in our neighborhood were selling copies of the San Francisco newspapers printed on presses in Oakland. The Hearst publishers rapidly erected a wooden building and in two weeks were publishing The Examiner in San Francisco. The United Railroads started work to restore streetcar service, and the first car ran on the Fillmore and 16th Street line on Sunday morning. I rode it to the end of the line, and I think that most of the other passengers felt as I did, that it was good to be doing something so normal as riding a streetcar. We began to look upon the restoration of the streetcar service as the first step in rebuilding the city. The mayor was at the controls as the first car was started on each rebuilt line.
There were, of course, thousands of refugees for whom life was anything but normal. The army set up all its available tents in public squares and in Golden Gate Park, and a few days after the fire the city began to erect wooden barracks. Some of them were occupied for more than a year.
I remember that people talked about the automobile and the part it had played during the crisis, Before the fire most of us had thought of the car as a wealthy man's plaything and one of doubtful reliability. The fire-fighting had demanded the use of all available vehicles-horse-drawn and mechanical--and most of the automobiles in San Francisco, including new ones still in dealers' showrooms, had been pressed into service, Cars quickly proved their superiority to horses. They were much faster and could be operated twenty-four hours a day. I often heard it said that the San Francisco fire of 1906 established the reliability of the automobile.
A few days after the fire ended, my mother and the younger children returned to our home, and I found work at the warehouse of a wholesale drug company which opened in a temporary location. Everyone was busy, and I frequently heard people say that the new San Francisco would be a far finer city than the one which had been destroyed. Some weeks later the Vulcan Iron Works reopened, and I found employment in their structural steel department. I worked on the steel framing of some of the, first new buildings erected after the fire.
Five generations of my family have lived in San Francisco. It is a city for which I feel great affection, and I have always been glad that I was able to have a small part in its rebuilding.
Howard Theodore Livingston was born in San Francisco's Mission District on October 17, 1889, and died in Olympia, Washington ,in 1973. Livingston was the eldest of seven children, and attended Lowell High School, but had to leave before graduation to help support his family. He later attended the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He served in the Corps of Army Engineers during World War I. He was later employed by PG&E in San Francisco, then, for many years, by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He retired in 1959.